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Unmade Remarks on Innovation (Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, C. D. Wright, Tanya Tagaq)

I was invited to take part in the closing panel of the UBC Arts Undergraduate Society’s student conference on “Innovation.” The members of the panel were asked to discuss ways in which academic faculty could foster innovation in student research, but I seem to have missed the memo, and so I prepared a set of remarks offering a critique of the concept of innovation. I realized my mistake about five minutes before I was scheduled to speak, so I ended up improvising some comments—using bits and pieces from what I had written—on the poetics of “study” (gesturing a little at Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s work on the undercommons) and on research as question and risk rather than innovative production: that it might be better to think of ourselves as students rather than experts. I also felt that I had pitched my remarks all wrong, and that it would be better to talk with this audience than read out my prose. Still, I like what I wrote; I used this moment to start thinking about Tanya Tagaq’s music, a critical project I have been meaning to set in motion for some time. Here is the composed undelivered text I’d prepared.
Innovation Without Innovation
Kevin McNeilly, University of British Columbia
Unmade Remarks at the AUS Humanities Conference
Saturday, 16 January 2016
I want to make a few remarks to frame and to critique the ideological loading of the concept of innovation. I’m resisting the un-interrogated praise of making things new—the allure of novelty—and at the same time trying to suggest a relationship to time, a going forward (or perhaps better, outward) that can be sounded as a crucial potential in particular forms of lyric, in poetic language that W. H. Auden famously imagines as “a way of happening, a mouth.”
Approaching the end of writing The Order of Things(1966/1970), Michel Foucault admits that he discovers himself “on the threshold of a modernity that we have”—that he has—”not yet left behind” (xxiv). This unqualified “we” is epochal, its episteme described asymptotically by the reflexive acknowledgement not only of the limits of his own language, but also of a cultural latecomer’s language as such: “the question of the being of language,” as he puts it, is “intimately linked with the fundamental problems of our culture” (382). (I’m poaching and re-appropriating material, if not the argument, from John Rajchman’s 1983 essay “Foucault, or the Ends of Modernism” [50].)  The shared cult of Bildung—linked to myths of progress, of newness, of innovation, of transcendence, of what the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers refers to as the “epic” of our time—presently and lately, as it touches the expressive limits of its own futurity, its forward motion, can only cannibalize and repurpose itself in the guise of renewal, a mortal remix that tends to pass off an eviscerated avant garde for material discovery.
Foucault must be thinking of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, pictured in the ninth of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
So-called progress names a cultural if not an ontological imperative as a species of dire pharmakon: remedy as ruin, betterment as destruction. In the opening paragraphs of one of his last texts, Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett articulates this imperative as driving whatever remains of self-expression in our time, the need to “go on,” and to go on saying, despite exhaustion, despite the obvious futility and emptiness of the new, despite the asymptotic approach of his language to its absolute expressive limits, its nohow: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” The work’s title parodies Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel Westward Ho!, an extended romance of colonial expansion, masculine industry and liberal self-reliance. More recently, Beckett’s lines have often been  misappropriated and repurposed as a kind of global capitalist mantra, a call to technological and corporate innovation. As readers, and fellow latecomers, we need to be more rigorous and careful about what Beckett articulates here.
Beckett’s language sloughs off the trappings of Western progress for an acknowledgement of cultural and epistemic decrepitude: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Speech deteriorates into fragmented clichés and bathetic puns; pushed to its verbal limits, the romance of expressive imperatives can only cannibalize itself. What passes for innovation or renewal reduces to tautology: “Imagination dead imagine.” For me, this fraught word-circuit allegorizes the broken teleology of the human project, its attenuated failure, a diagnosis that seems increasingly self-evident in our era of climate change, endocapitalism, exhaustive consumption, viral technocracy, global insecurity, displaced populations and supersaturated media. The imperative to innovate, however, persists as a resilient remainder, or “stirrings still” as Beckett’s last text puts it. Acknowledging the vestiges of this imaginative prod that might stir us on is one of the cultural functions of lyric, still, today. Confronted with its own extinction, Beckett’s language nonetheless enacts a thetic rhythm, a halting but persistent step beyond itself.
The American poet C. D. Wright, who died earlier this week, suggests in One with Others (2010) a comparable cultural function for poetry in our fraught, self-destructive era of “progress”: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” Wright’s declaration may sound as if she wants to recuperate naïve confession, potentially masking wreckage in aspirational nostalgia. That’s certainly a danger in advocating for poetry in an age when lyric language becomes increasingly corny, recycled and fatigued. Better understood, Wright advocates for a fracturing of interiority, a form of innovation, a freeing that doesn’t so much foster the cult of expressive genius as open intimacy onto an alterity, an outside, that refuses merely to cannibalize its own ruins.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Tanya Tagaq’s 2014 album Animism culls a lyric intensity, an embodied affective immediacy, by splicing and looping an extemporaneous, situated circular breathing derived from Inuit throat-singing back onto itself, supported by her core improvising trio with Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, and others. Confronting the porous boundaries between the human and the animal, the corporeal and the machinic, the given and the made, the recording troubles the edges of signification, and generates its eros by turning those zones of encounter inside out. Each nascent “song” offers a kind of post-natural ecology. It innovates not by being new but by freeing up, by crossing lines, and by making vocal music from the come-and-go of those transgressive stirrings. Her/their music surges up, finds its pulse, in sustained and audible risk. There is much to say, and to say on, about this recording, but I’ll finish my own set of re-purposed texts by briefly noting how Tagaq and group re-purpose and renew—innovate through—The Pixies’s “Caribou.” A parody, perhaps, of ethnomusicological collecting, the CD opens by concocting a form of techno-shamanism with a cover not of Inuit folksong but of American post-punk, inverting salvage anthropology into a call for, if not a performance of, primordial agency—deft ululation, yes, but also voicing an acute cultural politics through expansive virtuosity, decolonizing the ear: “Give dirt to me / I bite lament / This human form / Where I was born / I now repent.” In an interview in NME Black Francis apparently disclosed that “maybe even the singer of the song is reincarnated as a caribou.” In Tanya Tagaq’s version, animistic metempsychosis emerges from speech act—thematized as repentance in the lyrics—toward verbal becoming, the self—its human form—transubstantiated through unfolding textures of voice: anthropomorphic debris reanimated, said on, sung on.

Toward an Improvisational Pedagogy 1

Over the last decade, using various undergraduate and graduate classes as provisional testing grounds, I have been trying to develop what I have come to think of as an improvisational pedagogy. By “improvisational pedagogy” I don’t just mean teaching about criticism of improvisation and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance . . .), although such work certainly forms part of what I might do. And I don’t necessarily mean teaching classes on how to improvise, although techniques derived from the hands-on practice of various forms of improvisation constitute significant elements in a nascent methodology. I mean, I think, an educational practice that engages in real time with its own cognitive, creative and critical horizons, the self-attentive work of thinking on your feet, both before and with other people.

In forthcoming posts over the next few months, I’m planning to write in better detail about what I feel are some of the significant learning outcomes of such a pedagogy – including remarks on technique and nascent methodology, on student reactions, on literacy and critical canon, and on what others in the emerging field have called “the ethics of co-creation” – but for now I want to restrict myself to laying a little personal groundwork for this field of study. I have been participating this past week, telematically, in a think-tank at Memorial University, convened by the new International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, aimed at producing a draft curriculum for a potential graduate program for the study of improvisation. Some tangible results of our discussions and our collective commitment to this process will no doubt emerge in the coming year as this program takes shape, but for the moment I want to note how apparent it became during our meetings that we needed not only to define our field but to do so in a manner that distinguishes its salient characteristics, the traits and tactics that set it apart.

This conceptual winnowing, however, is particularly challenging around the study of improvisation because of its ubiquity: a fact that makes it both essential to study and seemingly impossible to frame as an object of study. At its core, improvisation articulates a deliberate elusiveness; whatever else it does, improvisation defines itself across a vast array of social and cultural practices as a refusal of the definitive, as excess. Whatever else – to repurpose an unsettled line from the self-troubling poet Irving Layton – whatever else, improvisation is freedom. It inclines, in all of its multiple and incommensurate forms, toward “whatever else,” toward not being an “it” at all, constantly worrying at and unknitting the hard knot of that “is” in definitions such as this. It’s a modality, for me, of creative undoing.

In a 2007 lecture called “Improvising Tomorrow’s Bodies: The Politics of Transduction,” George Lewis – who for many of us has become one of the major figures in shaping the field – reflects on how

improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see. That’s because improvisation is not really a philosophical Haltung for a few people living the artist’s life, but a fundamental mode of being in the world that all of us share.

Everybody improvises, all the time. But next to no one appears to attend with much care or acuity to the implications of the forms and practices of improvisation; like Lewis, and despite my privileging of aesthetic in my own teaching and writing, I don’t mean to aggrandize the role of the critic or the artist or the pedagogue in raising such reflexive awareness, but rather – through Lewis – to affirm the political necessity of such study within democratic space, within the culturally and socially managed domains of that sharing. Improvisation, Lewis asserts, “is the ubiquitous practice of everyday life, a primary method of meaning exchange in any interaction,” but that primacy remains largely unaddressed and under-scrutinized. The task, as Lewis understands it, is first of all to illuminate “the condition of improvisation,” and then to interrogate its affective and material impacts on the conduct of human life:

My overall view of improvisation, which can be described (if not defined) as exploration, discovery and response to conditions, part of a ubiquitous human practice of real-time analysis, generation, manipulation, exchange, and transformation of meaning, mediated by (among other factors) the body, history, temporality, space, memory, intention, material culture, and diverse methodologies. My claim is that improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself.

This is a big claim for what has been, by his own admission, a neglected and marginalized field of study, but I want to be clear that I hear his interdisciplinary sweep not as apologetics or as rhetoric, but as a genuine imperative. Improvisation names a fundamental human relationship to temporality and to historicity, and offers a distinct and crucial means – however plural and however elusive – to address who and when and where we are.

In an effort to stabilize improvisation into something like a concept, I want to invoke Michel Foucault’s reworking of the Aristotelean ἐπιστήμη or “science.” In The Order of Things, Foucault deploys the term episteme to refer to a way of knowing that pervades specific cultural or historical epochs:

In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.

As a “field of scientificity,” an episteme doesn’t define a particular science (Latin scientia, “knowledge, a knowing; expertness”) so much as the range and limits of the truth-value of science as such: what counts and what doesn’t count as knowledge. This formulation strikes me as too inherently rigid, but in as much as improvisation both shapes and evaluates the immediate production and dissemination of knowledge in our present age, in as much as it might name historicity as such – a ubiquitous set of human relations both to and within ordinary time – it strikes me that it might be useful to think it through as one among several entwined episteme of our given moment, as a name for the enactive articulations and mobilizations of knowledge in the human present. Thinking improvisation along these lines – despite Foucault’s early and I think untenable tendency to want conceptually to reduce and to homogenize – might offer an opportunity to describe, if not to define, a finite set of modalities within an extemporaneous science, modalities of knowing less prehensile, less closed and enclosing, than we might expect,— including listening (or better, aisthesis), practicing, collaboration, intersubjectivity, reciprocity, alterity. Improvising might be better understood neither as a method nor as a discrete modality of knowledge creation, but more as a resonant network of commensurate modalities. This list a merely a starting point, and such modalities would need to be much more rigorously investigated and situated, but at least for the present such terminology may offer a means of settling on something approaching a basis for thinking through improvisation.

Dead Paper

In an essay revised for the second edition of her Nomadic Subjects, Rosi Braidotti takes up the fraught question of men in feminism, somewhat ironically I’d say, by building on Michel Foucault’s concretizing of the conceptual, the “materiality of ideas”:
One cannot make an abstraction of the network of truth and power formations that govern the practice of one’s enunciation; ideas are sharp-edged discursive events that cannot be analyzed simply in terms of their propositional content. (264)
What this means, for Braidotti, is that
heterosexual men are lacking intellectually […] a reflection on their position in history. The politics of location is just not part of their genealogical legacy. They have not inherited a world of oppression and exclusion based on their sexed corporal being; they do not have the lived experience of oppression because of their sex. Thus most of them fail to grasp the specificity of feminism in terms of its articulation of theory and practice, of thought and life. (265)
The politics of sex and sexualities, for Braidotti, needs to account for the materiality of ideas, and to address and even to enact not merely propositional or conceptual empathies, but the interactive negotiation of differences, or better, of pluralities; her Deleuzian nomadism, sieved through Luce Irigaray, wants to work through an amalgam, an admixture, an assemblage of intellectual deference and embodied resistance to his “becoming-woman”:
For Irigaray, as for Deleuze, the subject is not a substance, but rather a process of negotiation between material and semiotic conditions that affect one’s embodied, situated self. In this perspective, subjectivity names the process that consists in stringing together—under the fictional unity of a grammatical I—different forms of active and reactive interaction with a resistance to these conditions. The subject is a process, made of constant shifts and negotiations between different levels of power and desire, constantly switching between willful choice and unconscious drives. (274)
This blend of situated excisions and unraveling sutures characterizes Braidotti’s repurposing of Deleuze, but what I’m hearing here also resonates with my current reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” for my Arts One class. I have to confess that I bristle – just as she appears to predict I might – at Braidotti’s foreclosed feminism, at my preemptive and summary exclusion from feminist critique by virtue of a generalized bifurcation of human sexual anatomy into a male-female antinomy, a division which, despite her philosophical pluralism, Braidotti still maintains. But I don’t want to appear to be a resentful, if privileged reader, grumpy about some area of gendered experience that he can’t finally appropriate or even access. And I do think Bradotti has a point: that sexual politics must emerge from materially succinct, and distinct, lived subject positions, to which we have incomplete access at best. (I am concerned, still, about the seemingly unimpeachable gender solidarity, however, that she continues to claim.) 
Rather than resentment, I want to suggest that this incompleteness, this dis-closure (as opposed to foreclosure) might be more productively understood as an unnamable and inassimilable source-point, a singularity, around which surges of differential and even creative energy might be said to accrete.  As a man in feminism, or at least in its sights, what I want is to think toward those gendered exclusions, those singularities, not to appropriate any vital differences – what makes other lives others – but to participate, even if only tangentially, in what Gilman characterizes as an economy of difference, what she calls (in the story and in her tract) work:
Those who object to women’s working . . . should remember that human labor is an exercise of faculty, without which we should cease to be human; that to do and to make not only gives deep pleasure, but is indispensible to healthy growth. Few girls today fail to manifest some signs of this desire for individual expression. (Women and Economics 157)
Labor – which she distinguishes from the “morbid, defective, irregular, diseased” and pathological work of human motherhood, the reduction of women to reproductive and domestic vessels (181) – is for Gilman essentially expressive, inasmuch as it entails an instrumental – that is to say, a poietic – and even causal relationship between what Braidotti calls “theory and practice” or between the propositional and the active. Gilman’s critique is as site-specifically and as historically gendered as Braidotti wants feminist work to be, but it also generalizes itself and its “lived experiences” in contradistinction to Braidotti’s exclusions, to introduce women’s experience into an aggregate of the human, to produce a still fraught but nonetheless accessible, differential humanism. The exclusion of women from the purview of the human is for Gilman something to be overcome – in the act of writing, no less – rather than a set of exclusions to be materially reversed and re-instantiated by a reactive, if just, politics:
What we do modifies us more than what is done to us. The freedom of expression has been more restricted in women than the freedom of impression, if that be possible. Something of the world she has lived in she has seen from her barred windows. (Women and Economics 66)
The determinisms of oppression need to be overcome, but it is in the eruptive and disturbing – and decidedly material – acts of resistance, including a resistance on and through paper, as much as the utopian teleology of a better, just and “modified” world, that Gilman values: the work, the lived and living process, of pushing back and of tearing down and of breaking through.

(public-domain image of Charlotte Perkins Gilman from the Library of Congress on-line collection)

The bars in the passage I’ve just cited echo the bars on the windows in the abandoned, “atrocious” nursery that Gilman’s unnamed narrator inhabits in the rural house her husband has rented out (apparently to enable a rest-cure for his wife’s incipient hysteria) and to which she is provisionally confined, a space that sharply inverts Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” in which the patriarchal benevolence of her husband (and other “doctors”) effectively bans expressive work of all kinds, especially writing: “There comes John, and I must put this away,— he hates to have me write a word” (13).  Even the narrator doubts her own expressive capacities, scare-quoting her first mention of “work” both to trivialize her own labor and to accede to her husband’s will that she deliberately distance herself from the unruly action, especially writing.
That she remains existentially trapped in a nursery speaks to Gilman’s critique of married motherhood and of the limitations it imposes on women’s capacities for self-expression. (The narrator has had a child, but she defers its care to “Mary,” admitting that she cannot be with her infant son because it makes her “so nervous” [14].) She is infantilized by her husband – “’Bless her little heart!’” – and effectively mastered by his “care.” He presents himself as the intimate physician of her psyche, but also doubts the reality of her feminine pathology:
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)— perhaps this is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick! (9-10)
Her tentativeness to assume the defiant agency of a speaker, to even suggest that her husband’s wishes might be detrimental to her health – and not, perhaps, only “one reason” but in fact the reason she cannot get better – is ameliorated by the confessional dead-space of the page, its inaccessibility to him both as secret diary and as empirically “dead” paper. Gilman juxtaposes the propositional and the lived, the representational, abjected deadness of words on paper and the lived realities of the narrator’s oppression outside the bounds of the page: a juxtaposition crucial to Braidotti’s materialism. This bifurcation is sutured in the tale – cinched, perhaps, without necessarily being healed or remediated – in two ways.
First, in the impossible horizon of the present tense, as the narrator’s descriptive account verges on speech act: “I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength” (13). These moments of reflexivity suggest that the act of handwriting, as an assemblage of corporeal effort (or “strength”) and propositional or thematic matter (whatever our narrator is describing or writing about) are drawn increasingly closer together. Her clipped style, with its journalistically brief paragraphs, affirms this aspiration to immediacy, to assemble action and description into the same written, subjectively-permeable moment. The penultimate page comes closest to this impossible presentism, when the narrator seems to be recording events in her journal as they happen around her, effectively making them happen (again?) on the page as her account unfolds:
                        Why there’s John at the door!
                        It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!
                        How he does call and pound!
                        Now he’s crying for an axe.
     It would be a shame to break down that beautiful door! 
This torrent of clipped paragraphs is meant to represent an hysteric break, but what it accomplishes in fact,  on the page, is expressive plenitude, an enlivenment. The potentially violent breach of that nursery door, behind which she has deliberately locked herself in an effort – a labor – to  exclude, and to exclude herself from, patriarchal mastery, is avoided by her admission to John of where to find the key, but it’s worth noting that her deference involves an immediate shift into the past tense:
            “John dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!” (36)
The expressive collision of word and event lapses into narrative distance, objectified and written down in retrospect, as soon as her husband’s access to her closed psyche is (however contingently, however much “perhaps”) is re-enabled.
             But the question of when and where – after the fact – the narrator continues to transcribe her experiences remains troubling here. The monstrous creeping she describes – creeping over her husband prostrate form, after he has fainted in his own moment of appropriated hysteria – does not entail a muted or inexpressible femininity, but is given voice through her:
“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (36)
She tears down the suppressive yellow wallpaper, behind which she has been imagining – perceiving – the trapped spectral figures of creeping women, but her account of this culmination of her self-assertion is recounted from a transcendental point-of-view, outside of the narrative time-frame. That paper, too, is the second image of subjective suturing that I want to take up. The narrator has become pathologically fixated on the “unclean,” torn, irregular, repellent, yellowed wallpaper leftover on the nursery walls. She scans it for “patterns,” in an effort to read and interpret it, to master what it says; it reduplicates a species of domestic panopticism, even – “those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere” on its surfaces (16).  The narrator links the wallpaper, at least overtly, not to oppression but to expression: “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (16). The wallpaper, that is, becomes a metonymy for the “dead paper” – to which it is tied contiguously in the tale as a writing surface – onto which the narrator pours out her life, animating the inanimate page over which our own eyes pore. Still, that paper is suppressive, as the shadows of the window-bars play across its surfaces. Visual layers emerge as the narrator tries to make sense of what she sees, the elusive arrhythmic “pattern”: “If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little” (31). Held under the surface, the submerged “pattern” is an irregularity, the repeated figure of a creeping woman, who starts to push at the paper’s outer membrane – trying to emerge from the amniotic wall – as she “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (30). Writing as écriture féminine – in secret, excluded behind closed doors, in an atrocious rented room – both stitches a subjectivity onto the dead page, a monstrous graft, but also tears at those sutures, pushes viscerally through the page to touch the material quick of the reader’s living world. This is the marvelous horror of Gilman’s tale, its vital creepiness: that it tears at its own pages the way our narrator tears through that paper.
Cited Things
Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in
          Contemporary Feminist Theory. 2ndedition. New York: Columbia
UP, 2011. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Old Westbury, NY: 
          The Feminist P, 1973. Print.
– – -. Women and Economics: The Economic Factor Between Men and
         Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. 1898.  Ed. Carl Degler. 
         New York: Harper, 1966. Print.